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A Voice for the Xukuru

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Marcia Mikulak (right) is joined in a field school in Brazil by students Shayla Longie, Elizabeth Beecroft (standing, left and center), and Erin Stohler (seated). The field school seeks to build better understanding and connections with the people of the Xukuru tribe in northeastern Brazil.

Since 2007 UND anthropologist Marcia Mikulak has been working with the Xukuru of Brazil, a tribe that has endured human rights abuses.

Marcia Mikulak’s journey to becoming a human rights researcher, advocate and activist was nothing short of unconventional.

Once a concert pianist, Mikulak was convinced she would live a life devoted to music. That was until some of her work was used by a nonprofit organization in a study of learning-disabled children and sound.

It was an awakening.

Mikulak, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Dakota, went on to work with children for 15 years — a period that included several awards for her innovative research. Over time, she also realized her true passion for human rights work.

“I’ve held babies in my arms that I could have saved if I’d had a warm coat. That is a terrible thing,” said Mikulak, who in conjunction with Global Citizens Network is currently leading a Field School with three UND students to study and work hand-in-hand with the Xukuru (Shoo-koo-roo) people in northeastern Brazil. “One of the major decisions I made was that either I’m in this all the way or I’m not in it at all.”

Life-changing moments

During Mikulak’s early years working with children in Santa Fe, N.M., she found herself frequently wondering what to make of these profound experiences.

“I had this exposure to the richest environment you could imagine and I was wondering what I was going to do with this,” she recalled. “Can I do anything with this? I wondered who I am, in a sense. Having been with all of these extraordinary people, where do I fit in?”

But Mikulak’s true foray into human rights advocacy began in the early 1990s when she started work on her master’s degree in philosophy in the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico. Later, from 1998 to 2003, her doctoral research led to work with street children in Brazil — the same country where Mikulak was born and spent the first eight years of her life.

A near-death experience in Rio de Janeiro helped cement Mikulak’s commitment to human rights issues.

Attacked while filming video of street children, Mikulak narrowly escaped a boy with a knife to her throat who was enraged that she didn’t ask the children if she could record them.

It was a life-changing moment.

“That was the beginning of my understanding of what my work was really going to be,” she said. “From that moment I put my camera away. My obligation to my dissertation and getting data for my university was no longer my objective. My objective was to find out who these kids were. And what was their voice?

“Who really listens to them as the authority on the situations they are in?”

Work with the Xukuru

Hired at UND in 2003, Mikulak was asked by Amnesty International to be a “country specialist,” a volunteer who provides counsel to individuals in need of help with human rights issues. In 2007, she began working with Chief Cacique Marcos Xukuru, the leader of the Xukuru tribe in Brazil.

Marcos Xukuru was the victim of an attempted assassination in 2003 when two gunmen ambushed him on a remote road. Mikulak said the incident stemmed from Xukuru tribal leaders nixing a proposal to allow tourism on tribal land.

Chief Marcos survived the assassination attempt, but the incident sparked the retaliation of several hundred Xukuru. Marcos Xukuru, in the hospital at the time of the event, was later charged with inciting a riot. He was then sentenced to 10 years and three months in prison.

More than 40 individual civil indictments have been brought against Xukuru community leaders who have campaigned for the development and support of basic human rights, Mikulak said. The Xukuru earned a significant victory last year when a human rights petition drafted by Mikulak was approved by the American Anthropological Association. The petition outlines several human rights abuses perpetrated against the Xukuru by the Brazilian government.

Mikulak spent several months with the Xukuru while gathering research for the petition during a developmental leave in 2011 in Pernambuco, Brazil.

“She would give her life for this tribe, I would imagine,” said UND sophomore Elizabeth Beecroft, an anthropology student from Minnewaukan, N.D., taking part in the field school. “You can see her passion when she talks about them. She lights up. It’s her life’s work.”

Mikulak hopes the UND students taking part in the field school will come away with a better understanding of

the Xukuru people and the tribe’s work in agriculture, medicine, education, government, business, art and religion.

Mikulak and the students are helping the Xukuru complete a kitchen for their new cultural center.

The UND group is living alongside the Xukuru, working and eating with them and

journaling about their experiences with the tribe each day.

The field school is a forum for both students and UND professors to experience social action research in a variety of areas that include indigenous education, medicine, micro-businesses, eco-agricultural production, music and theater, cultural mathematics, oral history, and political and social organization. It is open to students and professors across a variety of disciplines at UND.

Mikulak also said she will be contacting anthropology departments across the United States to spread the word about the field school’s work with the Xukuru. The group will host a blog during their time in Brazil on the Global Citizen’s Network website at globalcitizens.org, Mikulak said.

“I’ve always been interested in human rights work,” said UND senior Erin Stohler, Stillwater, Minn., who will participate in the field school. “Hearing about what Dr. Mikulak is doing and seeing how she does it made me even more interested. If you see something that is not right in our society, what are the steps you can take to change it? That is what she is teaching. That is what she is doing.”

Mikulak’s students have posted a blog with information and pictures from the Field School.

Heath Hotzler